A Child's Language Suitcase

ONE afternoon early in October, when I picked up my two children at the English village school they are attending this year, I asked Greg, who is eight, what he'd had for school dinner. ``You mean what did I have for lunch,'' he replied.

``It's called `dinner' at your school,'' I said, surprised at this correction. The school meals are, in fact, as substantial as what we Americans think of as dinner. For many children they constitute the main meal of the day.

Greg, however, was not deterred. ``In the family,'' he said firmly, ``I want to use the American word.''

Later that evening, my husband and I discussed our son's request. We'd been living in England two months, and were making our way through the surprising number of differences that exist between English and American terminology. Although our children had already made friends and were, as their teachers said, ``settling'' very well in school, perhaps our using American expressions at home would enhance their sense of stability.

Nevertheless, carrying through with that decision has been more complicated than we expected. Our daughter Erica, who is five, will often use an English phrase without being aware that she has abandoned the American alternative. One afternoon recently she discovered an old baby picture of herself peering out from under a beach hat. ``Why did you take that photograph of me in a bonnet?'' she demanded critically.

I learn a lot about how English teacher's distribute praise and blame from her comments when she comes home from school. ``Adam was very naughty,'' she'll announce. ``Alice was very cheeky during break.'' ``My teacher told me I was clever when we did maths.'' ``Do you want me to sing you a more jolly song?''

When she is aware of a choice, Erica will often be adamantly English. In England, for example, cookies are called ``biscuits.'' One afternoon in the summer as we were returning from a walk, she asked if she could have a ``biscuit'' when we got home.

Greg turned to her abruptly. ``Don't you mean a `cookie'?''

``No, a biscuit,'' she answered firmly.

``Are you going to talk the English way?'' he asked.

``Yes,'' she replied.

``I'm going to talk American,'' he said.

And Erica does talk ``the English way.'' She has acquired an accent and is occasionally mistaken for an English child. In contrast, Greg's American accent has remained quite fixed. Among the other boys in the neighborhood, it has even proved to be something of a social asset. According to their mothers, the boys come home saying ``you guys'' and expressing a wish to ``talk like Greg.''

But why this difference? Why should one child be acquiring an English accent and using English expressions while the other retains his flattened vowels and remains decidedly American? Before this year, I might have suspected a child in a foreign country who expressed a strong loyalty to his native land was betraying homesickness, but that doesn't seem to be the case. In fact, our son has found it easier to adjust to English life than his sister. Unlike Erica, Greg hardly speaks of missing our old neighborhood or of missing his friends.

How is it then, that children develop a sense of belonging to a particular culture? Are some children, like Erica, more susceptible to pressures to assimilate? Or can the differences in children's responses be traced to differences in age? Is an older child inevitably more conscious of his or her roots and therefore more loyal to them?

At the times when I'm inclined to this theory, I picture my children arriving in England carrying the words they know in suitcases. Greg's suitcase is already a little battered. He feels a strong attachment to the words inside because he's acquired them from the books he's read and the friends he's played with. Perhaps he'll add the new expressions he learns here - but he'll put them in a special compartment labeled ``English.''

Erica's suitcase (she would call it a ``case'') is still small. She doesn't remember where she found her words, and, now that she's in England, she simply dumps out any expressions her new friends do not know and replaces them with what she hears in school. She can hardly regret the absence of specifically American terms - they hadn't been hers for very long, anyway.

My husband and I watch all this with interest, and wonder how it will be for our children when they return to the States next summer with their British games, jokes, and expressions. Already Erica describes our life in Maine as if it had happened in an English village. ``Do you remember that sweeties shop we used to walk to in Waterville?'' she asked the other night. ``Where they sold those cold sweet lollies?''

How soon will it be before she says ``popsicles'' instead of ``lollies''? And will Greg betray any loyalty to the English expressions he uses here with his friends?

The pull of the language you hear around you daily is relentless, like a tide. Despite Greg's firm intentions, now that he's been in an English school almost four months the English words are creeping into his vocabulary, too. He will ask Erica if she wants another ``go'' at a game, will run in from playing with his friends to ask me if it's time for his ``tea'' (supper), will announce that he is going out in the ``garden'' (backyard) to scrape the dirt off his ``football boots'' (soccer shoes). Last week he was trying to explain to me what ``taking the register'' involved - the first event in his school day. ``I can't remember the American word,'' he said. ``I think it begins with `a.'''

We finally figured out that he meant attendance.

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